Privacy vs Value

The news today about Apple is very interesting. They were ordered by a federal judge to give prosecutors backdoor access to the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone. Many privacy advocates are aghast. Apple has refused to comply. This is likely to go to the Supreme Court in the future.

It raises a larger issue when weighing privacy vs. value. In this case, the question is asking whether expectations of privacy are more important than law enforcement ability to detect and deter crime (value). Over the last century this question has been tested against numerous technologies. Wire tapping, audio amplification, search and seizure, etc. All have been tested with various rules about “probable cause” and “reasonable doubt”. Certainly terrorism has caused the public to lean towards giving up their privacy in exchange for security.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Ben Franklin

Sometimes privacy is sacrificed in order to gain other kinds of value besides security. Harrah’s Casino in Las Vegas has pioneered “loyalty cards” that track every little detail about you to ensure they maximize the amount of money they squeeze out of you. When you are statistically flagged as “about to quit”, a casino employee comes over and gives you a bump on your card. All the sudden, you feel good and spend even more.

When told about the system, most gamblers did not complain. They said they liked the good service. They found value on the far side of privacy. They appreciated the bump regardless of how they got there.

There are tools now like Calendly and Clara and even Google Now which read your emails and in the case of Clara, email on your behalf. Those tools are totally looking at your stuff, but because it’s valuable people accept it.

Now imagine the company sold details of your inbox to the highest bidder. It wouldn’t surprise me if the terms of service allowed it. They could see which products you purchased and sell that info to advertisers. All of the sudden, the value/privacy equation shifts.

There is no perfect answer here. I think companies have to be transparent about the use of access including if they would give that information to the government or other law enforcement officials. I think if you gave enough value, people would tolerate any privacy issue.

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